“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the popular rhyme parents tell their children when some other child has said something hateful on the playground. Words, we’re led to believe, can’t inflict any real damage. We really didn’t believe it then. And we certainly don’t believe them now. Words can hurt and they can hurt a lot. They can wound us so deeply that the bleeding never stops. In worst cases, we carry that wound with us for the rest of our lives.
A lot of us have forgotten the damage words can do. Or at least, we seem to have forgotten. If some of us were aware of the damage our words could do, surely we wouldn’t speak that way. No one is that mean. Or are we?
Every day, we read another commentary on the nastiness of our public dialogue. The anonymity of social media has made us willing to say things online that we would never say to someone’s face. The relaxing of the norms of public behavior have made verbal assaults, even vulgar attacks, a common experience.
What can we do to return to a more respectful dialogue with our neighbors and friends, or former friends? First, Christians would do well to stop obsessing over how everyone else behaves and check our own behavior. You know, deal with the beam in your own eye before you deal with the speck in your brother’s eye.
Let’s remember, this isn’t the first time things have gotten chippy in the church and in the world around the church. The church was born in the hostility of the Roman Empire. No one wanted to hear the claims of Christ and the impact His church was making on the world. The church and its leaders were frequently attacked, daily according to Paul, and yet, they won the world over.
How? By showing them a better way to live. By showing the power of love to overcome hate and good to defeat evil.
They did this by remembering their ultimate loyalty was to Christ and to Christ alone. Regardless of the situation, Christ followers are never given permission to disobey. Unjustly beaten? Thrown in prison? Didn’t matter. The words and the actions of the believer always have to reflect the loving and life-giving presence of Christ.
Has someone said something bad about you on social media? You haven’t been given permission to respond in anger.
Christ-followers are always responsible for their behavior. We are should never allow someone to dictate our behavior. We don’t repay evil with evil, but we overcome evil with good. No exceptions. As Paul reminded the Ephesians, “Be angry, but sin not.” Anger is no excuse for disobedience.
Sometimes, anger is a proper response. Even then, we are responsible for how we handle our anger. We can’t say to Jesus that someone made us angry and that’s why we acted the way we did. Remember, He is a very jealous God, and He won’t share His Lordship of our lives with anyone or anything else — not even for a second.
Let’s pay attention to how Jesus responded when He was attacked. First, Jesus listened. His response to His challengers reflected how deeply Jesus heard what was being said. Jesus not only heard the words, but He heard the spirit carried by the words. Jesus responded to both. Why was Jesus so patient in His listening?
Because Jesus knew His attackers were no threat to Him. They couldn’t take anything from Him that ultimately mattered. Most of us would do well to meditate on this deep truth. If God is indeed for us — and He is — who can be against us? Our attackers can’t take anything of value from us. Our self-worth is grounded in the precious gift of the Imago Dei. Our value has been eternally established by the price Christ was willing to pay for us on the cross.
I don’t care what the world says, they can’t take that away from us.
And there’s one more thing I want you consider. Most of the time, intense anger is trying to protect a deep wound. It took me a long time to finally learn this while working in a local church. Most of the time, when someone is angry with the pastor, it’s because they’re hurting and don’t know how to discuss their pain with the pastor. So, they get angry. They will make an appointment with me to tell me how upset they are about something we’ve done in the church and, when we’ve handled that issue, they’ll tell me what’s going on.
But if I was defensive, I would miss the moment of ministry. I’m ashamed when I think of how many times I missed those opportunities. It’s one of the lessons I try to teach young pastors. Don’t overreact when someone gets angry. Create a safe place for conversation and communicate respect so they’ll feel comfortable telling you what’s going on.
This is what I think about whenever I see or hear the hatefulness in our public dialogue. How badly some of these people must be hurting! I wish I could tell them how the peace of Christ defies all understanding.
But I can’t do that if I’m only thinking about what I'll shout back when they stop shouting at me. Christ does bring us a peace that overcomes the world. Remember that when you walk in your world. Remember it especially when you speak in our world.